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  • Writer's pictureRyan Pollyea


I'm celebrating this week because the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors approved my promotion to associate professor with tenure. The tenure process is strange and interesting and stressful, and I'm not quite sure how to write about it. I could write a critical post about all of the problems associated with tenure, like who gets (or doesn't get) tenure-track positions, how academic achievement is measured, how grants are awarded, how papers are reviewed and published, how selfishness is encouraged. I could write this critical post because the problems are real and quite visible to anyone who's looking, but I think it's equally important to share the positive aspects of academia. Why it still matters. And why I'm so excited to now have a lifetime appointment doing something that I truly enjoy.

As a science professor in a research-oriented university, many of my colleagues are rightly focused on research, i.e., generating new knowledge. This is our focus and it is important because research identifies problems and finds solutions. In other words, research is the engine for social, environmental, and technological progress. But over the years, I've found that research is not the only thing that matters. In fact, I've been surprised to find that there is a different, perhaps more important, part of my job and one that is far more satisfying to me than the papers and grants and newspaper articles. It's the students. Our students are people who attend university as undergraduate and graduate students to learn about a specific subject, presumably to make a career of it. A career. Their future livelihood. They come to university at a life stage when their decisions are consequential. This is a big deal. And to be part of someone's future before their future exists, well, this matters more to me than any other part of my job. To offer learning experiences that shape students' unknown futures. To see lightbulbs come on when they master a difficult concepts. To share the joy that comes from an exciting discovery. To aid the realization that years of classes add up to collection of valuable skills on a resume. To share in the thrill of writing code that actually works. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the research, the progress, being part of solutions to complex problems, the challenge of publishing and grant-writing. But it's the people that really matter. I've been doing this long enough to see the early innings my former students' futures, their personal and professional development, and this brings far more joy than the traditional metrics of academic success. This is why I'm so grateful to have tenure. Because it means I can be part of many more unknown futures, and, with a bit of luck, have an opportunity to see them unfold.

Like many, my tenure run was damn hard. It was a roller coaster of emotions. Joy. Sadness. Excitement. Frustration. There were late nights and early mornings. Weekends. Holidays. More working hours than is fashionable to admit. But it was not a solo journey. I am eternally grateful for the superhuman patience and bottomless support from my wife, the endless encouragement from my mom, the unwavering love from my two boys, and the dedicated scholarship of my current and former students. They say that scientists stand on the shoulders of giants. This is true, but my giants are the family, friends, and mentors that held me up through some challenging times. Thank you to everyone who has supported and my journey, and continues to do so. We made tenure. And it feels damn good.

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